Archive for Procol Harum

A Whiter Shade of Bach?

Posted in Music with tags , on September 22, 2011 by telescoper

I’m finally back from a pretty intense three days in dear old Swindon. On the train coming home I happened to listen to this classic for the first time in ages and, too tired for anything else this evening, I thought I’d share this version  I found on Youtube because it’s positively dripping with nostalgia for the Swinging Sixties.

Incidentally, I’ve always believed that a Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum was based pretty directly on music by Johan Sebastian Bach. I don’t know who told me so, but I’ve always taken it for granted. Listening to it a few times on my iPod and again since I got home has made me realise that I’ve probably been a bit unfair to the songwriters Gary Booker, Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, a sentiment confirmed by the wikipedia article about the piece I linked to through its title.

It is true that it sounds very much like Bach, especially the trademark descending bass figures which feature in the Hammond organ part; indeed, the first few bars of the accompaniment are pretty much identical to the second movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068 better known as “Air on the G String“. After that, although the piece continues to sound like Bach, in the sense that the chord progression has a compelling sense of logic to it, it’s not an copy of anything I recognize (although of course I stand ready to be contradicted by music experts…). The melody is also, as far as I’m aware, quite original.

Here are the chords, by the way, if you’re interested. They’re a great illustration of the difference between a real progression and just a sequence. In fact I’m quite surprised this hasn’t been taken up by more jazz musicians, as it looks like very fertile grounds for improvisation – just as much of Bach’s own music is.

Anyway, whatever the inspiration, it was a huge hit and I think it still sounds fresh and interesting over 40 years later. I for one don’t think the word “masterpiece” is an exaggeration.